Using Community Arts to Defeat Austerity

John Bissett  |  John Bissett is a community worker and activist.

To whom it may concern, my name is John Bissett and I have worked as a youth worker and community worker in Dublin for almost thirty years now. I want to tell you a little bit about the creative challenges to the political imposition of austerity here in Ireland in recent years.

At the heart of austerity are issues of class struggle and class power. Just like neo-liberalism, austerity has been about the restoration of class power from the beginning.  It doesn’t seem like it is almost seven years since Lehman brothers collapsed and with it, a large chunk of the global economy including our very own here in Ireland. Capitalism existed before 2008 and there were significant and enduring problems then, but these have undoubtedly been intensified since the great crash of 2007/8. The biggest thing that happened in Ireland was that our government made sure, (by telling us it was in all our interests) that the interests of the class of bankers, developers and property speculators were given precedence above all others. There were various explanations for this which included telling us that if we didn’t comply with austerity we would no longer be able to borrow money from the financial markets and if we couldn’t borrow the money supply would dry up, and our bank machines would no longer dispense cash and ultimately we would all end up in a Mad Max-end of the world universe of dog eat dog. Funny thing is though, it never happened. But the price was high, very high indeed.

Ireland does not do many world records, but we now hold a world record for taking on, per capita, the highest level of bank debt in the western world. Since 2008, every man woman and child has effectively borrowed 37,000 euros per person. ( This is the individualised cost of the debt. Now, there is a general ethical question of a society taking on the debts of those paragons of risk taking and free marketeering, but the payment of the debt imposed significant and lasting damage upon the entire social and economic fabric of Irish society. At the heart of this was an intensification of inequality and social suffering. (I could fill the entire text of this article just documenting the programme of cuts and austerity measures visited on Irish people. The way the state did this was to use the annual budget as the mechanism for delivering austerity). For our own incumbent administration and for the European institutions that oversaw the process told us that this was an unfortunate but necessary dose of reality for all of us Irish who had really done nothing but party over the course of the Celtic Tiger. It was time to come down.

Against this backdrop of unfolding bank debt revelation and uncertainty, a small group of community workers, artists and community activists in the city of Dublin came together and formed a loose alliance which goes by the name of ‘The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope’, or ‘The Spectacle’ for short. It had a fairly modest and simple aim which was to ‘Defend’, ‘Protect’ and to ‘Sustain’ community based projects and services in Dublin and beyond, if possible. Those participating in ‘The Spectacle’ rejected the capitalist logic of ‘There is no Alternative’ and insisted that actually, there are other ways, and if we thought about things a little differently, people’s lives could be a lot better. People might even get to flourish! From an initial meeting of a dozen or so community workers and activists, a follow up meeting was held in Dublin where projects from all over the city (and in some cases beyond) attended. The thing that was different about ‘The Spectacle’ was its commitment to using the arts as the medium and mechanism that would drive the change.  Having read, heard and been told the maxim ‘Art is not just about making things, art is about making things happen’, we embraced it with gusto. Initially we did street demonstrations with a twist. In 2010 we got a couple of thousand people on a cold December ‘International Day of Human Rights’ to put their bodies on the streets of Dublin for the cause, so to speak. We gave a simple instruction to people and to groups; use the motif of the heart and do whatever you will. ‘Stop tearing the heart out of communities’ was our message to the austerity mongers. Music was at its core. Having managed to wrangle some resources from some of the more radical trade unions, we were able to recruit an artist to work on the project for a period of time. Given his own background in music and especially drumming, percussion became the soundtrack to the community protest movement. For our first demonstration in 2010, a music shop in Dublin lent us forty Bodhrans (an Irish hand held drum) for our participants, many of which were punctured by the mix of enthusiastic rage that funneled through the demonstration. In Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s book ‘The Multitude’, they talk about how a ‘mode of production’ changes; for example, from agricultural to industrial and industrial to digital/informational. Not to make too big a claim, but the first Spectacle demonstration in 2010 had this feeling to it, a sense of reinventing protest. Not many people noticed, especially the media, but the people who were there did.

The problem of ‘ethereality’ haunts demonstrators. A demonstration exists, it finishes, it no longer exists. Questions come, panic sets in; What next? Another demonstration? what if the numbers fall? (which they inevitably will).  It makes one think that there must be some law of physics or theorem that explains how and why demonstrations grow and recede. Demonstrations were and still are very much at the heart of ‘The Spectacle’ as a grassroots community movement. But within a year of its inception we decided to dip into French revolutionary history and make our very own Books of Grievances and Hopes. Prior to the French revolution of 1789 the King had asked all the three ‘estates’ to present their grievances or ‘cahiers’ as they were known. The end result of this request was the collapse of the monarchy as the litany of grievances which produced over forty thousand books was a key element in ending the Monarchy as the seat of power in France. Projects and communities worked on their grievances around the city and hopes were added to say that we were for something too. Equality, justice, radical democracy. (There are large books in my small office as I write this.) The books project opened up a space for people to express their anger and rage. There was a making involved and it was a tactile expressive experience. Books were usually made in groups over a period of time. Normally left to poets and writers (many of them conservative) this time people themselves, young, middling and older, authored their own thoughts on what was happening.

The books were used as the core of a community demonstration in 2011. There is an advertisement for a well know paint company in Ireland whose slogan is ‘It does what it says on the tin’. The phrase has become a sort of shorthand for making a point very directly and pointedly. Making a visible, image based, representation of the horrors of austerity became a piece of work for The Spectacle. Drawing on large image political work in Europe, The Spectacle set out to design a series of ‘panels’ on the theme of austerity to be used on the streets of the city of Dublin. Participants wanted to show images of the architects of austerity on the panels over some text, but there was debate as to whether the political or capitalist class was the most appropriate. It is undoubtedly due to the success of capitalism in its endeavors to muddy the waters as to how the world really works that participants were much more in favour of the political class being represented on these panels. To paraphrase slightly, the handmaidens of capital rather than the capitalists themselves were connected to their policies of austerity.

The Spectacle has continued with making panels, and in response to  the fierce debate over the introduction of water charges here in Ireland and the privatisation of the water supply, we made a series of panels specifically to add to the massive street based demonstrations that have been taking place here in recent months. The ‘Ministry of Thirst’ panels were a play on Orwell’s duplicitous ministries in 1984, and from their first outings they have appeared in almost every national newspaper here, as well as on TV and also internationally. So we are battered and bruised here from the onslaught of recent years, but we are far from beaten. In fact the next outing of ‘The Spectacle’ will take place on a day inaugurated in the city of Chicago in 1886. In America you call it Labour Day, here we call it MayDay. The difference matters nought, it is the sentiment of a radical egalitarian world that underpins such a day that matters. So greetings Chicago, La Lucha Continua.